Burrowing through the disciplines: The Challenges and Opportunities of bridging the humanities and natural sciences

The ‘age of climate change’, significant biodiversity loss and the food security debate have implications not just for the natural sciences but for all disciplines. It is possible for some fields to place human impact on environments at the very centre of scholarly research, using discipline-specific, traditional approaches to answer questions set out prior to research. However, some disciplines, including the humanities, do not at first glance lend themselves to environmental or animal-based research. Some scholars of the humanities are beginning to turn to other disciplines to understand the major environmental contemporary issues, outlined above, from different perspectives (environmental historians have been doing this for many years). Few however are working collaboratively on projects where disciplines have the potential to fit together successfully. For all the talk of interdisciplinary study, multi-disciplinarity, and cross-disciplinarity it is rare that disciplines come together in ways that form distinct new methodologies or indeed ‘cross-disciplines’, able to combine ideas and approaches from traditional fields of study.

Animal Studies is a relatively new field that is starting to break this mould. Scholars from history, art history, geography, anthropology, biology, fine art, psychology, philosophy, sociology and others come together in this field, creating a family history that is complex but has the potential for large rewards if members can sustain good familial relations between themselves. The field is about integrating many disciplines to understand animals in ways not imagined before, engaging with the problems of ‘agency’, with notions of ‘animality’ and ‘brutality’, asking how humans anthropomorphize animals and questioning how ‘non-scientific’ scholars might objectivise their own observations. As the field is still emerging, scholars remain able to largely define their own criteria when working under current subject parameters, depending on whether they are from an art, humanities, natural or social scientific background. This however has the risk of causing problems as there is the potential for fewer commonalities in aim and method of researchers and a lack of clarity as to the objectives of the field more broadly.

This blog post is principally a reflective exercise, looking back at nearly a year’s worth of research into the crossovers between the natural and human histories of earthworms, utilising historical and ecological sources to forge a new methodology for writing animal histories. However, the aim is to provide a much broader focus, challenging both the humanities and the natural sciences to look for consensus in aims and try to forge a common methodology that can be utilised by scholars of Animal Studies. Of course, Animal Studies has room for a wide variety of methods and I do not suggest that all other methods should be abandoned in place of the method outlined here. However, scholars could benefit significantly by making a start towards discussing methods that can be used by specialists of all disciplines who engage with the field and analysing them for their potential strengths and weaknesses.

The insights laid down here stem from a new research cluster at the University of Bristol, led by Dr Andy Flack, where scholars with an interest in animals, at various stages of their careers, come together to look for commonalities in research focus and forge a cohort which encourages interdisciplinary and collaborative research within and between departments. The article does not deeply engage with the defining characteristics of Animal Studies but does raise some questions that members of the research cluster should attempt to engage with. Due to the nature of my undergraduate dissertation research from 2013-14 the focus in this article will be in bridging the humanities with the natural sciences but I encourage other members of the Bristol Animal Studies cohort (currently known as the ‘Beastly Histories’ cluster) to discuss the benefits and difficulties of crossing disciplinary families. Principally this post will discuss whether interdisciplinary research is useful for Animal Studies researchers, reflect on the first ‘beastly histories’ cluster meeting, and discuss the challenges and opportunities of bridging the humanities and natural sciences, using my previous dissertation research on earthworms as a case study to illustrate the presented ideas. The focus of the Bristol Animal Studies cohort is on interactions between humans and animals in the past. However, this post, at times, looks beyond this focus, placing questions of Animal Studies’ methodologies at the centre of a much-needed agenda for the Bristol ‘Beastly Histories’ cluster.

My dissertation research, which culminated in a piece entitled ‘History, Ecology and Invertebrate Agency: A Study of the environmental impact of the earthworm in natural and human history’, attempted to engage with a newly constructed methodology which implied independent historical ‘agency’ for animals, based upon an independent, ecological agency (animals having physical, biological and chemical influence upon their ecosystems). The research, as a process, involved understanding earthworms ecologically, biologically and historically, a complex interaction of experiences over time, some repetitive and some unique. The result was largely successful and I found that interacting with both ecological and historical studies achieved an original and exciting approach to interdisciplinary work. However, on reflection, a key flaw in the research lay in that I was, from the beginning, fully dependent on literature written by ecologists and oligochaetologists (earthworm specialists) in understanding the biology and ecological profile of earthworms, lacking the necessary disciplinary skills and knowledge myself to engage with independent ecological research. My own research engagement lay with the historical analysis of written sources. However, the original focus came only with combining this historical analysis with the ecological research of natural scientists.  The quality of the research would arguably have been much improved had an ecologist been involved alongside my own independent historical research, to add ‘expert originality’ to the ecological analysis embedded within the work. Original research on both the historical and ecological aspects of the study may have resulted in a more intellectually rewarding interdisciplinary paper than that achieved by only involving the skill base of one disciplinary researcher.

A key observation of the first ‘beastly histories’ research cluster seminar was not how much scholars in each discipline had in common with each other, drawn together as we were by a common interest in animals and animality, but the stark differences in ways of thinking between members, both between those who shared the same disciplinary background and between those from different academic fields. Interdisciplinary research may work in theory but when researchers with different kinds of expertise come together we should question whether it is possible for scholars to work together democratically, when their own interests and ways of thinking are so divergent. An advantage of working alone during my earthworm research was that I had complete control over the structure, content and emphasis of argument denoted in the final product. Research cannot always be democratic and, if different disciplines are to work together, projects may require a lead researcher and a secondary researcher. The lead researcher would have the responsibility for forging a direction for the work as well as ultimately editing and profiling the study, whereas the secondary researcher would be there to provide their expertise on aspects of the research, methodologically or informatively, writing sections of the work but ultimately fitting in to the agenda of the primary researcher.

The opportunities that interdisciplinary Animal Studies research presents the Beastly Histories cluster are potentially significant. By involving several disciplines in the construction of an animal profile paper the result would be more intellectually rigorous and more nuanced papers would be achieved. The danger would be forging a trans-discipline lacking any clear disciplinary grounding or parenthood, perhaps necessary in the initial stages to encourage researchers to become involved in the project. Unless researchers see clarity in the project’s aims and objectives they will be unable to see how their own work is relevant and therefore will shy away from involvement. Further, in writing collaborative papers the aim of the research would have to be set out clearly, establishing why the topic fits into ‘animal studies’ research, rather than any other traditional disciplinary background. The potential interdisciplinary aspect to Animal Studies is a conceivable defining characteristic. This post has suggested that before collaborative work can begin, the cluster needs to understand what the concrete aims of the group are, what ‘interdisciplinary interaction’ means for researchers within the cluster and, perhaps most importantly, how members define and envision their own engagement with the project.

By Ben Eagle

Undergraduate, Historical Studies, University of Bristol

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